Like most of the world, staff at NLM has been engaging with others through various technologies – video conferencing, virtual daily work huddles, and conference-inspired meetings that require screen sharing, virtual breakout rooms, chat features and instant messaging. I’ve gone from a 30-minute commute, including a short walk and a metro ride, to a 3-minute walk from my bedroom to my home office. Those lovely, long walks across the NIH campus that formed the bridges between meetings three or four times a day are now replaced by 60-second coffee refills between almost-non-stop video calls between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. And where before I only had to make sure that I looked professional and polished, I must now make sure that there’s no clutter or distracting pictures or items in the background – the camera sees everything!
Fortunately for me, I regard meetings as a high art. For the past 15 years, meetings have been one of the main mechanisms through which I work. Early on I learned two great tips from a great biomedical informatics guru, John Glaser –
Never walk out of a meeting with more to do than you came in with, and never close a meeting without knowing who is taking the next steps on every item.
This comes in handy when your days are lived on camera! I can’t match the wisdom of John, but I can share some ideas that are proving helpful to me as I (virtually) meet with NIH colleagues, the NLM leadership team, individuals with whom I’m collaborating, and NLM staff through “brown bag” lunch sessions.
I’d like to share a few of my own tips garnered from my years of in-person and virtual meetings.
Call people by name, often.
This is particularly helpful if you are leading a meeting, for it acknowledges people and engages them in the moment. It is also important when you are a participant. Using names helps compensate for the lack of communication cues in video calls, such as eye contact and head nodding, and fosters engagement and stimulates participation.
Start on time and end on time.
I know I’m not the only one whose days are lived through conference calls and video chat. By starting and ending on time, you demonstrate respect for everyone on the call, as well as those in the prior and subsequent calls. In addition, it saves you from having to start every next call with the “sorry I was finishing up a previous call” apology.
Allow for pauses.
This is important for the leader of the meeting and is also equally relevant for participants. It can be difficult to pick up on visual and audio cues, gestures, and conversational threads, such as someone leaning back, leaning in, shifting their gaze, or changing their tone of voice. So, it becomes particularly important to let pauses stand an extra second or two to allow someone to come off mute or organize their thoughts.
Keep your camera on when possible.
Keeping your camera on provides visual evidence that you are present and attentive during the conversation and meeting discourse. It’s courteous to others, and yes, it does mean that you have to attend to the image being displayed, but it allows your colleagues to see that you’re not reading email or distracted by other issues. It also reinforces the connection between the speaker and the audience and enhances a sense of group engagement. Although some may worry about excessive bandwidth consumption, the social value is worth it!
Keep your microphone off unless speaking!
Visual cues are important; auditory cues are distracting. Until technology advances, microphones (mics) often create distortion, pick up background noise, contribute to audio feedback, and generally degrade the conversational experience. Remaining on mute signals respect for the speaker and gives them a non-competitive platform for discussion. It helps to learn the steps of muting and un-muting to keep up with the rhythm of the conversation.
Check your mic often and use a headset with a good mic.
Get to know your mic, how it works, and the indicators that it’s live. Poor audio quality can affect the experience of the video call for everyone. Many of us forget that the mic is on our laptop and the further away we are from the mic, the poorer the audio. I’ve found that using a headset helps because it puts the mic close to your mouth and will help minimize background noise. It is key to your personal happiness and professional survival that you make sure you know how to troubleshoot basic mic issues, particularly knowing when your mic is on, when it’s NOT on, and to stay alert so it’s never on when you don’t realize it!
Use chat features judiciously.
Most video conferencing software has some type of text support, usually called “chat.” I find this feature to be very useful when I’m NOT the speaker and very annoying when I am. Sometimes, in a big and exciting meeting, sidebar conversations held through the chat feature can provide clarification and enhance the shared experience. However, every thought appears on the screen and it can be distracting to the speaker. If you really want to chat your way through a video call, consider setting up a parallel channel in a different platform for that purpose or consult with your speaker beforehand. Your speakers will thank you!
Watch your backgrounds!
Video conferences introduce us to the private lives of our colleagues in ways never before anticipated, often by having the opportunity to look over the shoulder of your colleague and into their background. Some video conferencing platforms allow you to customize the image projected on your screen – a blessing and a bane. Remember that some backgrounds may best be left for personal calls with friends or family, and professional engagements do best with a more subdued background where the interest can focus on the person, not the background.
Many of the mental mechanisms we use in human discourse add meaning and interpretation to the words that are exchanged. We remember how a colleague smiled when bringing up a new idea, or the worried look when your words weren’t well understood. Note taking (I use a fountain pen and write in long hand) helps keep me focused during video calls, aids me in organizing thoughts, and often provides a reminder for the next meeting or conversation.
Take a break!
This tip is for you; not about using the technology. Technology is unrelenting and always demanding. The immediacy of work, the pull of people waiting for a meeting to begin, and our tendency to overschedule can lead to very packed days. As an industrial engineer with human factors training, I know that performance degrades over time and short breaks help! Schedule breaks – at least every two hours – even if only for five minutes. Take a walk, hug your child or someone you love, or start a load of laundry. The goal is to refocus and refresh!
What have you learned from 10 months of video conferencing? Please share your tips and ideas here – we are all in this together.